A Tale of Three Deaths

Yesterday’s Easter holiday coupled with the upcoming canonization ceremony for two popes this weekend here in Rome took my mind to a similar confluence which took place three Easters ago. It is a tale of three deaths, two of which resound again now in 2014. Those three remarkable deaths had been celebrated worldwide during a period two weeks: each had a particular flavour; each was celebrated in its own manner. But they were all cherished because, people believe, these deaths produce life. Let’s look at them in turn.

Osama Bin Laden’s death in 2011 was long desired, and took place just like a movie would (and did!) portray it. In four helicopters, “the small, elite force flew low and fast,” as Time magazine describes, to ambush Bin Laden in his sealed mansion.[1] President Obama exalted the greatness and determination of America, which “can do whatever we set our mind to.”[2] People celebrated a sense of closure and revenge, and the prospect of a safer world after Bin Laden’s death.

John Paul II’s beatification took place just one day before Bin Laden’s execution. It remembered the deceased pope Karol Wojtyła, and declared him blessed and capable of interceding on behalf of Catholics who pray in his name. Pilgrims came here to Rome for the celebration, and in the newsstand in front of my apartment there is a book with the title Karol is Alive. They are coming again this coming Sunday, for his and pope’s John XXIII canonization ceremony.

Bin Laden was alive, and people wanted him dead; John Paul II is dead, and people wanted him alive. In Bin Laden’s case, people believed his death will prevent further killing of people through terrorist action; in John Paul’s case, further life was bestowed to him through the religious mechanism of beatification, and it is believed that he is alive, performing miracles, and answering people’s prayers. Life and death are interwoven in their deaths.  But regardless of political or religious beliefs, we all recognize that their deaths do not modify much of the state of things, nor change our lives in a substantial way.

And then we come to Jesus’ death, celebrated on Easter. Curiously, his death was much more like Bin Laden’s than that of John Paul: a hunted man, killed brutally because of alleged crimes, ascending shamefully to a cross. His funeral reminds us more of al-Qaeda underground cells mourning the death of their leader than the throngs that flowed openly to St. Peter’s when John Paul died.

Still, Christians believe (and all Christians in this one) that Jesus’ death produced life, and a rather particular kind of life: eternal, redeeming, abundant life. Death died when Christ died; he took mortality in his flesh so that it would be nailed to a cross with him. The Death of Death in the Death of Christ was the title of a seventeenth-century work by John Owen, and it condenses well the gist of Paul’s celebration: “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”[3]

Bin Laden was killed, and there will hopefully be less violence in the world because of it. John Paul died and was beatified, and there will be a prominent example to inspire people. Jesus died too, like them and like the rest of us, but his tomb is empty. His death is different. Death could not contain him; he rose from it and offers us eternal life. This is a death that changes things; this is a death worth celebrating; this is a death that produces true life.

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5 responses to “A Tale of Three Deaths

  1. Thanks for this Sarah and René. That is indeed an interesting confluence of celebrations in the last few weeks.

  2. I read several blogs each day and find much information and gain understanding by doing so. But this blog, far and away, causes me to do much more of one thing – think! This article is a perfect example in that it points to a simple, basic truth, but in a way that it crashes head long into the world around me and means that I have to sort out what it is that “I think” about the place and state of the world. So, to all who contribute here, thank you or should I say think you! As you think through your faith life, you are sharing insites that cause me to do the same, in a way that is life giving (and sometimes a little perplexing) I’ve always said that a good sermon will take an important question and in answering that question turn it into five more questions. I think this blog does that very well

  3. Dear Rev. Keith,

    Thank you for your kind words! They arrive warmly and encourage me deeply. It is such a joy to hear that Wondering Fair is helping you think about life and ask hard questions. We want to encourage people to wonder about life indeed and to consider it from a standpoint of faith.
    Great to have you with us! I hope you can multiply these questions fivefold still to your congregation! Blessings,

    René

  4. Pingback: To make a difference | Wondering Fair·

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